Updated: Oct 29
By Kaye Olsson, I Start Wondering Columnist
Since retiring, I have relished a newfound sense of freedom and made the decision to live life to its fullest. Now when opportunities present themselves, I have started saying “why not?” instead of automatically saying no.
That’s why, when an email appeared from an all-woman adventure travel company that offered a last-minute opening for an Appalachian Trail hiking trip, I did not delete it. I actually stopped to consider the possibility. As a novice hiker and an introvert, tackling this famed trail with 12 strangers sounded challenging, scary–and pretty fun. So of course I signed up! The result turned out to be a rich, memorable experience that was even more than I expected.
Hitting the Trail
The Appalachian Trail is over 2,200 miles long, stretching from northern Georgia to Maine, and takes approximately six months to hike through. Thousands of “through hikers” attempt to complete the entire trail each year but only a few hundred actually make it. The trail is quite challenging–winding through wooded areas, up and over mountains with plenty of rocky terrain and steep inclines. That’s why I was thankful we would only be hiking small portions for about six hours daily during our four-day adventure.
When I arrived in northern Georgia, I was picked up by the company van and introduced to my fellow travelers as we drove to the iconic arches that mark the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. Instead of being hot, as I had feared, the spring weather was quite chilly as a cool front blew through and doused us with rain. We trudged along the trail, wet and shivering, and were eventually rewarded with a gorgeous waterfall. The rain finally broke and the skies cleared as we completed the muddy trek back to the van.
We made our way to the hostel, which provided us with sparse but comfortable accommodations for the week. The best part of that evening was a hot shower, followed by a wine tasting provided by a local vineyard. Who knew Georgia had wines–and they are not all made of peaches?
The hikers in Kaye’s group
Taking the Next Steps
Over the course of the next few days my companions and I tackled parts of the Appalachian Trail, wondered at beautiful waterfalls and sampled a variety of Georgia wines. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and, upon returning home, it occurred to me that lessons learned on the hike could also be applied to life in general. Here are a few of my thoughts:
Focus on the Present
Hiking the trail forced me to pay attention to where I was every single minute; otherwise, I could easily trip over rocks or tree roots and go tumbling off the path. Turning around to look behind me could be equally as dangerous. I found it really helped to just concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other instead of dreading the incline up ahead.
Savor the Surroundings
Paying attention to where I was going was obviously important, but pausing to appreciate the beauty made the journey more enjoyable. There were often quiet moments on the trail where I could just soak in the scenery and listen to the sounds of nature–the roar of wind through the trees, the singing of birds, or the gurgling of rushing water.
It's All a Matter of Perspective
After hiking in the woods for hours, stumbling upon a primitive privy with wooden walls and an actual toilet seat felt like the most luxurious thing in the world. A simple sandwich was an incredibly satisfying meal in the wilderness. Our hostel, which was equipped with bunk beds, felt like a palace compared to the pop-up tents we saw along the trail.
Kaye at the top of a vista
Celebrate the differences
One of the most enjoyable parts of the trip was exploring a new part of the country and interacting with people who were different than me. My fellow travelers were women from all across the country who were of different ages, fitness levels, and backgrounds. They also spoke a variety of languages (yes, North Carolinian is considered a foreign language). But we all seemed to be able to find things in common, including the shared sense of accomplishment when we reached our goals.
Adventure is a lifestyle
The women in my group were all very well-traveled. One woman, who was 68 years old, had hiked all over the world. She not only kept up with us but actually outpaced younger members of our group on the trails. I loved the fearless, open-minded attitude I saw displayed by my fellow hikers and made a personal goal to always keep learning and exploring, especially as I get older.
What opportunities can you embrace? And have you found any lessons in these new experiences?